Two groups of Maryland legislators want to close a statutory loophole regarding which adults can and should be punished for engaging in sexual conduct with a student.
One bill would apply to adults who work with children in either a school system or a county recreation program. A second bill adds volunteers at schools and employees and volunteers at private recreation facilities.
Both bills agree that coaches should be written into the law.
Maryland law criminalizes sexual contact between certain people in a position of authority and a minor in their care, but lawmakers say there is a huge loophole in the law.
The law defines individuals in positions of authority to include principals, vice principals, teachers and school counselors.
However, the law applies only to individuals who are full-time, permanent employees. It does not apply to part-time employees and coaches, substitute teachers or volunteers.
Lawmakers in both chambers point to the 2012 case of a Montgomery County middle school teacher as a reason to change the law.
The teacher was 47, and he was accused of having sex with a 16-year-old former student. The student was, at the time of the alleged offense, on a high school track team that the man coached part-time, according to police.
He was charged with two counts of fourth-degree sex offense because prosecutors said that, as a former teacher and the victim’s coach, he was in a position of authority.
Charges against him were dropped due to a legal technicality that prevented prosecutors from moving forward because he was not employed full-time.
Sens. Jamie B. Raskin, Jennie M. Forehand (D-Dist. 17) of Rockville and Nancy J. King (D-Dist. 39) of Montgomery Village have proposed a Senate bill to close this loophole. Dels. Luiz R.S. Simmons and Sam Arora have proposed a House bill with a similar mission, but different provisions.
Raskin (D-Dist. 20) of Takoma Park said lawmakers have tried for nearly a decade to close the loophole.
The House and Senate bills differ in several ways.
Simmons (D-Dist. 17) of Rockville said he and Arora (D-Dist. 19) of Silver Spring want to broaden the list of people in authority positions who could be held accountable under the law by including part-time school employees, coaches, independent contractors and employees of county recreation departments.
The two delegates fused their respective bills on this issue last year, Simmons said. Their consolidated bill passed the House, but not the Senate.
Arora said this year’s bill is nearly the same. One amendment would add employees of boards of education, he said.
Simmons said his Senate colleagues are taking “a different approach.”
Arora said the House bill aims at “fixing the problem,” while the Senate bill involves “larger reform.”
The Senate bill also broadens the list of people in authority, but goes further by including volunteers, Raskin said.
“Most volunteers have the best intentions in the world and want to help, but some predators will sneak in as volunteers in order to find their prey,” he said.
Arora said it’s “not unthinkable” that volunteers would make the list, but that could raise challenging questions “because of the difficulties of coming up with a durable and discernable definition.”
The bills also differ on whether the law should apply to people who work at private recreation facilities, as well as county facilities.
Raskin said the House version is limited to those who work for county recreation facilities. His bill would go further and also include those who work or volunteer at private facilities, such as private sports clubs.
The House and Senate bills also don’t agree on other aspects.
One is how much jail time a convicted fourth-degree sexual offender should serve. The House bill would impose one year in jail, while the Senate bill imposes a five-year punishment, Raskin said.
Another is related to relationships between students old enough to consent — at age 16 in Maryland — and people in authority.
Raskin said he favors the law applying to any people in authority, regardless of how close in age they might be to the student.
However, some lawmakers think prosecuting a 20-year-old coach in a relationship with a 17-year-old student, for example, is too harsh, Raskin said.
“A 20-year-old assistant track coach in a relationship with a 17-year-old student could still be grounds for firing or making sure that person never works in a school again,” Raskin said. “The question is when we should send that person to jail.”
His bill would prohibit sexual contact between a person of authority and a minor who is at least seven years younger.
Before the 2013 bill fell apart, Raskin said, lawmakers reached a compromised on an age gap of about eight years.
Simmons said the problem of students being victimized usually involves a larger age gap, a point Raskin also made. Most cases involve adults in at least their 30s, Raskin said.
Simmons said the evidence points to problems involving part-time employees, independent contractors and coaches.
Lawmakers say they are open to compromise.
Arora said he wants to see the loophole closed as soon as possible.
“We have so much more in common than separates us on this issue,” he said.
Raskin agreed, but said he will hold fast to having part-time teachers and coaches, substitutes and volunteers included.
John Woolums, director of governmental relations for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, said the association supports both bills.
“I think those bills are well intended and address our primary concern, which is to no longer limit to full-time permanent employees,” he said.
Woolums said the association does not support the 7-year gap aspect of Raskin’s bill but the overall goal is more important.
“In essence, if it’s that important to the legislature to include that provision, we’re not willing to oppose the legislation in the interest of eliminating that age gap,” he said.
Lisae Jordan, executive director for the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said it has been “extremely frustrating” to see the debate over concerns about people of similar ages prevent legislations’ passage over the years.
As efforts have failed, the law has not protected some teenagers, she said.
“They’re really left out in the cold because people are so concerned about the cases involving an adult and an older teen who are close in age,” she said.
Jordan said the Senate bill is the first in efforts since 2006 to include a 7-year age gap.
The Parents’ Coalition of Montgomery County, an advocacy group, has come out in strong opposition to the Senate bill.
A Monday guest post on the coalition’s blog criticized the bill and its sponsors for including a 7-year gap.
“There are no gaps in age at all in the current Position of Authority bill,” the blog post said. “That is why this bill is so terrible. Maryland is going backwards.”
On Feb. 11, the Montgomery County Board of Education voted unanimously to support both bills, as long as they apply to school system employees.